Now that the master lever has been consigned to its grave, right-wing “reformers” turn their sights on the other thing on their wishlist: the line-item veto, a constitutional amendment that would give the governor the power to slash items from a budget.
In all likelihood, I expect that this will pass and become a feature of government – this is an issue that only animates one side of the debate. But I expect that like other reforms advanced by the right-wing, it will make little difference. However, the arguments for it are so faulty, I feel it’s necessary someone say something.
It’s Meaningless That 44 States Have It
This is true, there are six states without it (besides Rhode Island; Indiana, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Vermont all lack it). Even Washington, D.C. has it. But because it’s so widespread, there’s no correlation with any outcomes. The states with it don’t have higher per capita GDP, they don’t have less unemployment or greater growth. There’s no particular impact on corruption – indeed, the 10 states with the highest per capita conviction rate for public officials all have the line-item veto. Governors across the country have such a wide range of veto powers that saying 44 states have it is just as meaningful as noting the President of the United States doesn’t. Both statements are true but have no bearing on the debate. It’s the “everyone jumping off a bridge” fallacy.
It Can’t Clean Up The State House
In a recent op-ed in The Journal, lead proponent of the line-item veto campaign, Ken Block (former Moderate Party chair and two-time gubernatorial candidate), points to the indictment of former House Finance Committee Chairman Rep. Ray Gallison and argues that this sort of scandal proves that the power of the General Assembly needs to be reigned in. There’s a leap of logic here that’s astounding. You can’t get there from here. Gallison’s criminal activity wouldn’t be affected by the line-item veto. It’s not like the Governor can veto the Assembly clean. There isn’t a line-item in the budget that says “oh, a state representative is stealing from the estate of his late friend, don’t worry about.”
Furthermore, in my opinion, the best example of Gallison’s overreach was the abolition of the ability of cities and towns to make minimum wage laws. That law was passed to specifically target Providence and stymie a particular unionization drive. A line-item veto would not have prevented that.
The Governor Already Has A Check – Though It’s Rarely Used
Block describes the Assembly as having “unchecked power” – but this is hardly true. For one, the chambers of the Assembly check each other. For another, the Governor has an existing veto authority, that goes unused. Our government is particularly conflict-averse, so when a budget is negotiated, the Governor has a seat at the table so that the final budget is broadly acceptable to all three major players (the Governor, the Senate, and the House of Representatives). A governor who aggressively used veto power (line-item or otherwise) might find their leverage reduced in budget negotiations, and find their future priorities suppressed. It also doesn’t take much to override a veto; you only need 3/5ths of those *present* to override a veto (if everyone shows up in both chambers, that’s 45 Representatives and 23 Senators). Only a majority of legislators is necessary for a quorum to do business.
The Savings Are Miniscule
If you look at the savings eked out by states with the line-item veto, the numbers are incredibly small, usually amounting to less than 1 percent of a yearly budget. Often, these are cuts that reflect the priorities of the governors: for instance, Gov. Charlie Baker in Massachusetts cut funding for early voting. Given the “waste and fraud” mantra of the line-item veto proponents (the actual “waste” and “fraud” usually translates to “programs for the poor”), we should expect that this power will be expected to be used to further slash the social safety net in Rhode Island.
It’s worth noting that none of the big-ticket spending issues of the last decade would’ve been affected by this because they’re virtually all supported by governors. 38 Studios and the DMV computer system were from Gov. Carcieri’s budgets. The current UHIP scandal was an initiative of Gov. Raimondo. When Governor and Assembly work hand-in-hand, there might as well not be a check.
There Are Likely Ways To Blunt The Effects
The best argument right-wing reformers have is that a line-item veto forces the General Assembly to make votes on particular budget items. But there’s nothing that would prevent the Assembly from coming up with workarounds. For instance, since they only need a majority of 3/5ths of those present, scheduling overrides over a number of days could allow legislators who might be harmed by a particular item to “miss” a vote. Alternatively, the Assembly could just write its rules to bundle all the overrides into a single bill and vote on them all at once. It’s likely the governor will line-item veto both priorities of the Assembly that might be suspicious and provisions that are popular but the governor doesn’t like. The Assembly could then just shield its suspicious priorities with popular provisions (as it already does in the budget).
This Is An Obvious Conservative Power-Grab
Let’s be clear. If the governor or the next one was likely to be a left-wing firebrand, we would not be having this debate. A federal line-item veto is a priority of the right-wing Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation, and it’s no surprise it’s filtered down to us here in Rhode Island (they’re not having this debate in New Hampshire, for instance). This is a conservative reform that’s palatable because conservatives have a shot at the Governor’s office, both through long-standing tradition and due to the unpopularity of Democratic nominees. Though there’s no other realistic choice, it’s not particularly surprising that the proposed line-item veto vote would happen at the same time as the 2018 elections for governor. Progressives should be skeptical of the promises made by the pro-line-item veto side.
The line-item veto is a good example of sound and fury signifying nothing. This is a reform that will require a constitutional amendment and a vote. Promises will be made that this will help transform our political system. And the end result will be a minor tweak that quickly makes little difference. The reality is that drastic, effective reforms for Rhode Island’s government don’t even require a constitutional amendment. They can be done entirely within law and rule changes. The line-item veto represents the intellectual failure of Rhode Island’s conservative movement.